2 Missoula City Councilors file ethics complaint over crisis services levy mailer
(Missoula Current) Two sitting members of the Missoula City Council filed an ethics complaint against the city alleging it violated portions of Montana's Code of Ethics by campaigning for the passage of the crisis services levy heading into last week's election.
The complaint was filed by council member Sandra Vasecka with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) on November 10. Council member Daniel Carlino joined the complaint, and both were included in a reply from the City Attorney's Office.
Vasecka told the Missoula Current on Thursday that she “noticed that a pro-levy mailer was paid for with property tax dollars.” As a result, she and Carlino approached City Attorney Jim Nugent to ask about state law that guide's such activities.
“I believed this mailer was in support of the levy, therefore it was in violation of campaign finance laws,” Vasecka said. “Since campaign finance laws fall under the purview of the Commissioner of Political Practices, I reported the alleged violation to COPP.”
Vasecka said she got the complaint notarized several days before the election. However, the complaint was received and stamped by the state on Nov. 10, several days after the election.
“The City of Missoula took the funds for post cards out of the operation shelter budget. Those are funds that were budgeted for helping with the shelters,” Carlino told the Missoula Current. “It is against the law to use taxpayer funds to help support a levy. Instead of spending the operation shelter funds to help Missoulians who need a place to stay, the city changed course by spending those funds on a post card to help support a levy.”
The city and county both have contributed $350,000 to open and operate a winter shelter for the homeless this year. At the same time, they voted to close the outdoor shelter last month, citing logistical challenges heading into winter, and funding concerns.
City Attorney's Office response to complaint
City Attorney Jim Nugent told Vasecka and Carlino that under state law, a public official or staff member can perform “properly incidental” activities.
Nugent said that includes such things as determining the potential impact of a ballot measure on local government operations, were the measure to pass or fail. Nugent added that general education around a ballot measure is allowed “to be disseminated by a public entity or public employee.”
But Vasecka and Carlino believe another section of state ethics law prohibits “the use of public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds” to win support or opposition to a ballot issue.
The two council members said the city and county paid for the crisis services levy mailer. They went on to suggest that the mailer was “blatantly in support of the levy.”
“The sentence 'This November, voters will decide whether to fund a crisis services levy that would keep these crucial, life-saving programs moving forward,' impl[ies] that the voter would be risking lives if they voted in opposition, and thus, that mailer is obviously in support of the levy,” Vasecka and Carlino wrote.
The levy ultimately failed to win voter support.
Vasecka was a vocal opponent of the levy and resisted a City Council resolution asking Missoula County to place the levy on the ballot. She also ran as a Republican for the county auditor's position but lost her election.
As for Carlino, city officials who spoke off the record said he appeared to be in support of the levy – a fact that's now muddied by his complaint against the city and suggestion that it acted unethically by working to educate voters around the potential benefits of the levy.
City officials declined to comment on aspects of the complaint, citing pending litigation. However, they did say the mailer was appropriate and that the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices has agreed.
“The City and County sent an informational mailer to help voters make an informed decision about the Crisis Services Levy,” the city said in a statement to the Missoula Current. “While we believe the mailer was appropriate, we’ll fully cooperate with the Commissioner of Political Practices as this complaint is resolved.”
COPP: Complaint failed to cite evidence of wrongdoing
Jeff Mangan, the state's Commissioner of Political Practices, has indeed resolved the issue, saying the two laws cited by Vasecka and Carlino in their complaint fall under the Montana Code of Ethics and failed to cite any illegal practice.
But Mangan added that enforcement of such issues lies with the county attorney when the complaint involves officers or employees of local government. In that regard, he said it was up to Vasecka and Carlino “to notify the county attorney” of their allegations.
“In this case, neither complaint alleges specific violations of Montana's Code of Ethics by any individual officer or employee of local government,” Mangan said.
Mangan added that state law does prohibit public employees from soliciting support or opposition to a ballot issue while on the job, or at the place of employment. But even there the complaint provided no evidence of such practices, Mangan determined.
“Neither complaint alleges any specific instances where an individual employee of local government has solicited support for or opposition to a ballot issue while on the job, or at their place of employment for the Commissioner to consider,” Mangan concluded.
Vasecka on Thursday said she may pursue the issue further.
“After some reflection, I might pursue this further and bring it to the County Attorney,” Vasecka said. “I want local government, in fact all government, to be held accountable for their actions. If this is the way to ensure government follows the law that they require citizens to follow, then so be it.”
The Missoula County Attorney's Office said Thursday it has received no official complaint from Vasecka or Carlino.